Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin is known today as the second longest tenured manager in Major League Soccer and one of the key architects of a club that has positioned itself among the league’s elite, but 10 years ago last week he was still a fresh face in the coaching ranks when he led a group of local kids to the 2012 U17 Generation adidas Cup title.
Behind three penalty kick saves by Zack Steffen in a shootout at Starfire Sports in Tukwila, Washington, the Philadelphia Union won its first trophy at any level over Toronto FC in the final of what at the time was an MLS-only event.
At a time when the first team was struggling through a season finishing in eighth place and missing the playoffs, the GA Cup trophy was a clear sign of hope for a brighter future that could be reached by mining local talent.
Articles about the GA Cup win on the team website at the time flanked headlines like “Union hope to rebound following ‘extremely disappointing’ defeat” and “Hackworth expects slightly modified roster due to suspension, recoveries.”
“There was a real vision that this thing is going to take time, but it’s also going to be done in a really professional way, a high level way, almost the European model at a time when MLS, I’ll just say wasn’t that way,” Curtin recalled. “When we won (GA Cup) I think people looked our way a little bit at that time and we’ve become kind of a runaway model for youth development.”
Zach Pfeffer, who became the Union’s first homegrown player when he signed from FC Delco in 2011 at age 15, was one of the stars of the GA Cup that year and would help usher in a new era of local talent that would end up blazing a trail that today is a key component of the team’s roster-building strategy.
Steffen, who could be considered a miss not being signed as a homegrown when the Union had the chance, played the hero in the final on August 10, 2012, when a 2-2 draw had to be decided on kicks. His presence gave the Union a significant advantage and also helped to calm the nerves on those taking the kicks.
“I think everyone on the team had the utmost confidence in him,” Connor Maloney, who played with Steffen again when they crossed paths at Columbus Crew, recalled. “Zach’s always ready for the big moments and that was one big moment.”
Pfeffer, Maloney, Joey Julius and Brian White all converted from the spot in the 4-3 shootout and were greeted on field at Starfire by their U17 teammates along with younger players from a U15 team that included several future pros of its own.
“What was really cool was my brother (Austin) was on the younger Union team and they were there and they all came out onto the field,” Maloney said. “It was just a really cool experience; something I’ll never forget.”
Phil Karn, who coaches the Union Academy U13 team now, oversaw that U15 group, which included future pros Danny Barbir (Oakland Roots), Jack Casey (New York Red Bulls II, Morgan Hackworth (San Diego Loyal), James Murphy (Orange County SC), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea FC), Kevin Silva (Pittsburgh Riverhounds) and Isaiah Young (Rot-Weiss Essen).
Combined with the U17 group, the Union teams at that year’s GA Cup had 13 future pros despite only one (Pfeffer) ever suiting up for the Union’s first team.
“I was really fortunate to have such a great group of players,” Curtin said. “If you go through that list, it’s kind of a who’s who of players who went on to do great things on and off the field.”
White, who was an outside back on the U17s, is a forward with Vancouver Whitecaps — he recently scored a huge goal in their Canadian Championship final win — and Skundrich has carved out a career at D.C. United. Maloney, a forward in his youth and college days, is a right back at San Antonio FC and Zandi is one of several Union-connected players playing under former Union assistant and Bethlehem Steel FC head coach Brendan Burke with the Colorado Springs Switchbacks.
Several other players on that U17 team played at big college programs like Will Campbell (UNC and Penn State), Billy McConnell (Indiana), Matt Greer (Dartmouth), Max Kroschwitz (Villanova), Kenny Lassiter (Syracuse and La Salle) and Austin Kuhn (Penn). Julius ended up on the Penn State football team as a kicker.
“It was pretty much non-stop intense training through the summer,” Campbell remembered. “The end goal was very clear from the beginning and even though we barely knew each other going into it we got really close by the time we were getting on the plane to Seattle.”
Campbell, whose brother George Campbell is a center back for Atlanta United and whose cousin Mason Toye plays for CF Montreal, has seen firsthand how swiftly the development model has evolved in the past decade. He would go on to star for the Union U19 team in the Development Academy before going to college.
“Seeing how far the program and everything has come since then it’s just really cool,” Campbell said. “There’s so many more opportunities and the pipeline with Union II is much clearer.”
Tommy Wilson, the Union’s director of academy and professional development, joined as academy director from his native Scotland a year after the GA Cup win, but knew early in his tenure what it meant to the club at the time and how much it highlighted the talent in the area.
The history of talented soccer players in the Philadelphia region long pre-dates the Union as an organization — Curtin himself is a former MLS veteran from the area — and while the academy today also heavily recruits players from outside the territory many of the biggest success stories have still been players from the backyard of Subaru Park.
“We’re in a really, really strong territory,” Wilson said. “That team was put together like an all-star team and went out and won so it demonstrated the talent that was here and how strong some of the local clubs were.”
The Union joined the Development Academy (the precursor to MLS Next) with full-time teams for the 2013-14 season and opened up YSC Academy, the school where most academy players attend. By providing an individualized approach to academics and incorporating training throughout their school day, the Union has been able to see players like Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie sold to European clubs and usher in another wave of homegrown players poised to follow suit.
The GA Cup trophy still has a prominent place in Curtin’s office and is brought out from time to time for five a side tournament days between the first team players.
“They like nothing more than lifting that cup on a tournament day,” Curtin said.
Though the club’s first official trophy didn’t come until the 2020 Supporters’ Shield, the academy can also boast the U12 Generation adidas Cup trophy from 2019, a Concacaf U-13 Champions League trophy from 2019 and the U17 MLS Next Cup that was won last month in Texas. Though the trophies aren’t the point at the youth level, they have come as a natural outgrowth of a program that’s always striving for improvement.
“We would never let winning get in the way of developing players for the first team,” said Karn, who led the U13 team to a trophy in Costa Rica in 2019. “But when you get into these competitions you train and prepare to go there and win.”
Two big first team trophies still loom large for Curtin as a coach — the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup — but looking back a decade to a time when he was still working to find his footing post-playing career, he sees how valuable that experience was not only as a building block for the team but for him as a coach. Current Union player liaison Dan Nolan and Red Bulls Academy director Sean McCafferty were also part of his staff on that trip.
“I think some of my quotes are almost like a different person talking because I didn’t have the media training and I was still just learning through the process,” Curtin said. “So I think, to see from there to now, it was a really special and important part of my development, for sure.”
An unforgettable one at that.